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Bear [Mass Market Paperback]

Marian Engel
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

Jan. 1 1976 New Canadian library (Book 172)
After five years buried like a mole amid the decaying maps and manuscripts of an historical institute, Lou is given a welcome field assignment: to catalogue a nineteenth-century library, improbably located in an octagonal house on a remote island in northern Ontario. Eager to reconstruct the estate’s curious history, she is unprepared for her discovery that the island has one other inhabitant: a bear.

Lou’s imagination is soon overtaken by the estate’s historical occupants, whose fascination with bear lore becomes her own. Irresistibly, Lou is led along a path of emotional and sexual self-discovery, as she explores the limits of her own animal nature through her bizarre and healing relationship with the bear.

A daring and compelling novel, Marian Engel’s Bear won the Governor General’s Award for 1976.


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Bear, which won Marian Engel the Governor General's Award for fiction and remains her best-known novel, is a short, lyrical book with a simple, notorious plot. A solitary, reclusive woman works as an archivist for a Toronto-based Canadian history institute that receives a large and unusual bequest by a descendent of a notable military family: a remote house in northern Ontario, filled with an unknown quantity of books and manuscripts. Engel's heroine travels to the house, which is accessible only by water, and begins to catalogue the deceased colonel's collection. Along with the house, the protagonist encounters Homer Campbell, the capable, friendly manager of the local general store and gas station, and an aging black bear that was once a pet of the Institute's benefactor.

As Bear continues, its heroine's research among the house's antiquated library draws her into serious reflection on romantic literature, but most readers won't bother with this--it is the protagonist's sexual relations with her pet bear that are the most famous element of the novel. Engel is, happily, not particularly graphic in her treatment of this subject, but she does load it with a great deal of symbolism. Many readers will find that her novel tries too hard to be a parable of animalism, while others will simply dismiss this solipsistic love story (for that is what it is, after a fashion) as unbelievable. Nevertheless, anyone who is not adverse to this mode of didactic storytelling will find Bear to be an enjoyable--and unusual--read. --Jack Illingworth --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Marian Engel was born in Toronto, Ontario, in 1933. She grew up in the Ontario towns of Brantford, Galt, Hamilton, and Sarnia. She received her B.A. (1955) from McMaster University and her M.A. (1957) from McGill University, where she wrote her thesis, “The Canadian Novel, 1921-55,” under the supervision of Hugh MacLennan.

After living abroad and teaching in the United States and Europe, Engel returned to Canada in 1964 and settled in Toronto, which was to remain her home.

Her many novels and short stories explore the daily lives of her contemporaries, frequently reflecting upon the human condition from the perspective of women.

Engel was a founding member of the Writers’ Union of Canada and served as its first chairman in 1973-74.

Marian Engel died in Toronto in 1985.


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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A disturbing tale finely told Jan. 18 1999
Format:Paperback
Marian Engel's short novel Bear is an odd book. Winner of the Governor General's Award (Canada) in 1976, it clearly has attained critical success. In broad outline, Engel tells the story of a bookish young woman, Lou, working as an archivist in dusty historical institute, who is given the field assignment to catalog a nineteenth century library located on a remote island in Ontario. The only other inhabitant of the island is the pet bear of prior the occupants, and a strongly sexual - though not consummated - relationship develops between them The subject matter of this book may be very disturbing to some - an afterward in the Canadian edition to this book notes that many have described the book as "pornographic". I do not agree with this censor's view, but agree that it is not a book for children or prudes.
The real "subject" of the book is Lou's growth from retiring recluse to more confident woman; although the medium of transformation is through sexual awakening, this is not the sole or even principal end result.
Finally, a word must be added about Engel's wonderful writing. Her characters, settings, and descriptions are lively, strongly visual, and at times amusing. Take, for example, her musings on historical Canadians: "The Canadian tradition was, she had found, on the whole, genteel. Any evidence that an ancestor had performed any acts other than working and praying was usually destroyed. Families handily became respectable in retrospect but it was, as [Lou] and the [Institute Director] often mourned, hell on history." More such fine writing awaits the reader of this short but non-complacent novel, which I recommend.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A disturbing tale finely told Jan. 18 1999
By Rick Hunter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Marian Engel's short novel Bear is an odd book. Winner of the Governor General's Award (Canada) in 1976, it clearly has attained critical success. In broad outline, Engel tells the story of a bookish young woman, Lou, working as an archivist in dusty historical institute, who is given the field assignment to catalog a nineteenth century library located on a remote island in Ontario. The only other inhabitant of the island is the pet bear of prior the occupants, and a strongly sexual - though not consummated - relationship develops between them The subject matter of this book may be very disturbing to some - an afterward in the Canadian edition to this book notes that many have described the book as "pornographic". I do not agree with this censor's view, but agree that it is not a book for children or prudes.
The real "subject" of the book is Lou's growth from retiring recluse to more confident woman; although the medium of transformation is through sexual awakening, this is not the sole or even principal end result.
Finally, a word must be added about Engel's wonderful writing. Her characters, settings, and descriptions are lively, strongly visual, and at times amusing. Take, for example, her musings on historical Canadians: "The Canadian tradition was, she had found, on the whole, genteel. Any evidence that an ancestor had performed any acts other than working and praying was usually destroyed. Families handily became respectable in retrospect but it was, as [Lou] and the [Institute Director] often mourned, hell on history." More such fine writing awaits the reader of this short but non-complacent novel, which I recommend.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Poetic and Erotic Novella Nov. 6 2012
By D_shrink - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A rather short 141pp but fascinating story of how a lonely but passionate historical librarian finds herself with nature while cataloging the book collection and artifacts on a remote island in the Canadian wilderness with only the pet bear of the prior owner for company. The estate of Jocelyn Cary and its all contents were left to an institute which Lou, the librarian works for. The only other visitor to the remote island is Homer Campbell, the co-owner with his wife Babs of the supply store on the mainland. The store is by no means a modern supermarket and Lou sums it up when she says on p40 "It made her glad she had grown up on Campbell's Soup and bologna and peanut butter sandwiches."

The story becomes erotic bestiality but told in beautiful snippets of prose as, "The weather was like silk on her skin." Yet truth be told Lou enjoyed cunnilingus with the bear, whom she simply calls BEAR. On p119 Lou says, "They lived sweetly and intensely together. She knew that her flesh, her hair, her teeth and her fingernails smelled of bear, and this smell was sweet to her."

Yet through all of this attempt to find herself, she knew it must end and describes it so on P139, "She went back and sat in the empty, enormous house...It was a fine building, but it had no secrets. It spoke only of a family who did not want to be common clay, who feared more than anything of being lost in history."

Reading this was a deeply moving experience. The writing and descriptive passages are beautiful and I would highly recommend it for fans of serious literature. It is a shame that this Canadian author's life ended so soon in 1985 at a rather young age, but her work lives on.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More than you think Dec 8 2006
By Abbie - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Bear is more than just a story about a woman on an island, interacting with a bear. It is about a woman who finds her place in life, her life wants and goals, and her tracks to her life journey. This is about a woman who was headed in the wrong direction--leading a drab, boring life, a life that seemed to be controlled by the affair she was having. She takes a trip to a historical house on an island in Canada and finds that it was more than she had ever expected. Her life change and new attitude was fueled by a sexual relationship. It is more than just a sexual relationship--she finds out how to love herself and love others as well. Bear is an interesting tale filled with sadness, love, and truth. This story needed to be written and needs to be read.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bear Revisitied Oct. 28 2012
By Susan from NYC - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I read Bear years ago and when discussing obscure and wonderful books with a friend I wanted to re-read it and see if it stood the time test. Ha! Try to find a copy - NYPublic Library - one copy in the entire 5 borough system and cannot be borrowed (?!), B & N - sorry, not in stock, looks like out of print, Amazon - one click and you can have it in a few days. Yes! Hey - this book is still beautiful, edgy, moving, and worth a second and third read.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Special Paradise for the few Sept. 2 2007
By P. BEDNAR - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
And like all paradises, transient, for without loss, a paradise does not exist.

Marian Engel weaves a dense, exposed little world for her character and the reader, I'm not sure I can say more than the other reviewers, but only express my joy with the book. It's funny to see what is disturbing for some, tepid for others, and downright heaven incarnate in the north woods for others.
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